NEEMO 16: An Amazing Internship Research Opportunity

By Kaila Cappello
Kaila Cappello at Mission ControlImage at right: NASA intern Kaila Cappello poses from the NEEMO Science Facility.

I arrived in Key Largo on Sunday June 10th for the start of the NEEMO 16 mission taking place at the NOAA Aquarius lab located in Conch Reef. After settling in, I got to meet many of the people part of the NASA group and other members of the operations and science teams before we began the first all-hands meeting. After everyone introduced themselves, a quick briefing was given of what is to come during the mission. Not knowing much of what to expect, I begin to realize the amount of work and knowledge that is behind this mission and the amount of intelligence and experience that is packed into one trailer. To say that I was extremely intimidated is a bit of an understatement. An explanation is given to the group about how so many people would give an arm and a leg to be here for this mission, and my excitement grows as I realize how very fortunate I am to be here. After the meeting, I get a tour of the trailer in which the science team is located and some of the other facilities and features of the mission before adjourning for the day.

Mission Day 1

Day 2 started with the aquanaut splash down, the departure of those who are descending to live in Aquarius for the next two weeks to perform operations that will contribute to the understanding  and training of the eventual landing on a Near Earth Asteroid.  After the boat carrying the aquanauts departs, everyone meets for an all-hands meeting in the MMCC where introductions again are given for the new arrivals.  Afterwards, the entire science team meets in our trailer to set up and begin planning for all the dives that will take place over the coming week. Instruction and information is given to the DeepWorker pilots to get an understanding of what the science team wants to get out of the missions.
After lunch the team assembles again and we go over the Castaway and EXO2 Sonde software so that we know how to operate them for use in the dives. The Castaway is a handheld instrument that is deployed attached to the DeepWorkers and provides profiles of the conductivity, temperature, salinity, depth, and sound speed over an extended period of time, and the data from the mission can be viewed and collected afterwards. The EXO2 Sonde is a larger instrument in the shape of a cylinder a few feet long that measures even more parameters every second, including dissolved oxygen, pH, ORP, blue-green algae and chlorophyll, turbidity, and fDOM. It uses Bluetooth wireless communication and the data can be retrieved and downloaded after the mission. The Sonde is also attached to the DeepWorkers during each mission. Both instruments were borrowed from YSI Incorporated for NEEMO 16.
After we go over the technologies we’ll be in charge of during the DeepWorker missions, we then try to plan out the scuba dives of Mark Patterson and Art Trembanis where they will collect sediment and microbe samples and study closer some areas of spur and grooves as well as the great barrel sponges. A dive is scheduled for the following day to test the sampling device for the microbial samples, the camera equipment, and the flow visualization method of the barrel sponges. The equipment that is needed for the dive then gathered and organized and tasks are assigned to be done before the dive as day 2 comes to an end.

Mission Day 2

On Tuesday, we arrived at the dock bright and early for our originally planned deployment for the Lana Rose at 6:30. Due to some setbacks, our departure was delayed by about an hour.  We were given a quick safety briefing once we got onto the boat before leaving for the Lana Rose. Once we arrived to the ship, we transferred all of our belongings and equipment and climbed aboard the 100-foot long salvage vessel. We then began to setting up and testing our equipment to make sure we would be able to easily deploy them for the DeepWorker missions later in the day. We then waited around for awhile as the crew made some preparations for the arrival of the DeepWorker pilots and rest of the science team.
When the others arrived, we set up the Castaways and Sonde and got them ready for deployment. When our job was done, we got back onto the R/V Latency to transfer us back to the dock. We then took a break until the estimated deployment time of the DeepWorkers of about 3 pm. When we met back up, we attempted to begin sorting out communications issues between us and the science team on the Lana Rose to get everything up and running properly, and we set up a large television screen with the live feed of a camera mounted on one of the DeepWorkers. We then went over protocol on taking notes of the mission of what we see via the live feed and what we hear from the pilots’ descriptions of what they are seeing. We unfortunately hear of many complications with deploying the subs due mainly to the rough sea state and the inability to safely get the subs in and out of the water using the crane on board, and as more time passes we decide to alter and shorten the planned missions. The deployment time of the subs is delayed still by more and more time until it is eventually called off for the day as it gets too late.
Kaila Cappello poses with the DeepWorker sub.

Image at right: Cappello greets the DeepWorker sub on the Lana Rose.

After a break for dinner, the entire science team meets up to discuss plans for altering the mission schedule since a full day of missions had been lost. We review what went wrong and how we can schedule the rest of the missions to get as much done as possible. Shifting the schedule to night dives is discussed since it is believed that the sea state will be better, and how these changes would affect the pilots, the teams, and the boat crew is also brought into consideration because a change in sleeping patterns could pose a higher risk for the dives. Eventually a decision is arrived at to run a mission starting in the early evening and ending late at night, but to let everyone sleep in the morning before the mission.

Mission Day 3

The next day started late with a science team meeting at 2 pm. We reviewed the plans for the dive to occur later in the day and come up with a tentative schedule for the day, keeping in mind the delays that will inevitably occur and factoring in time to process data and sleep so that everyone gets enough rest. The dive is set for 8 pm and a test dive is also scheduled to occur around 4 to make sure the DeepWorkers can be deployed safely.
Sponges on the reefImage at right: A monitor displays images of sponges on the reef.

We left for the Lana Rose with the rest of the science team around 6:30, bringing with us the Castaway and EXO2 Sonde equipment. Once we arrived, we quickly set up our equipment and got them ready for deployment and then returned to the dock again soon after. Back in the science trailer, we waited for the subs to be deployed and watched the live feed of the camera mounted on DeepWorker 6 manned by Dr. Stan Love. We took notes as we saw objects and areas of interest on the screen, and we also rated the data quality and the observation quality every 20 minutes.  After a few hours, the communications and live feed was delayed by 50 seconds to simulate the delay if the sub was actually as far away as on a Near Earth Asteroid. The mission lasted about three and a half hours before the DeepWorker resurfaced. We then waited around until the team returned from the Lana Rose so that we could turn off the Castaways and Sonde and download the data before finally calling it a night.

I am lucky enough to be using this mission for my research internship for the summer on the great barrel sponges in the reef. Throughout the week, I will be helping out with some closer study and tests done on the sponges to use for my research on the distribution of the sponges throughout the reef and the types of environments they prefer to live in. I am extremely excited for the rest of the week and to be on the boat actually viewing some of the dives take place. As an engineer, I am fascinated by the DeepWorkers and the other slew of technologies at work during the running of these tests, and I am incredibly thankful to be given the opportunity to witness some of this amazing mission.
Learn more about NEEMO at


By Aquanaut Tim Peake (European Space Agency)

The NEEMO 16 Crew prepares for splashdownImage at right (left to right): JAXA Astronaut Kimiya Yui, NASAAstronaut (and N16 Commander) Dottie Metcalf-Lindenburger, ESA AstronautTim Peake, and Veteran Aquanaut Dr. SteveSquyres.

After months of training and preparation the day finally arrived…Splashdown for NASA’s NEEMO 16 mission. The crew woke early, eager to pack the few last remaining items into the ‘pots’ that our superb support crew, amongst their many other tasks, would be taking down to the Aquarius habitat ahead of our arrival.

The atmosphere on the Key Largo dockside this morning was buzzing with activity, conversation and good humour. The NEEMO mission team had gathered to say farewell to the saturation crew – and despite our intense excitement at what lay ahead we were genuinely sorry to say goodbye to all our friends and colleagues who have dedicate so much time and effort into making this a successful mission so far.

The weather today was kind, as it had been all week, and with only a 2-3 foot swell to deal with, our dive boat made quick work of the 8km out to Life Support Buoy, which feeds Aquarius with electricity and clean air. It felt quite weird — donning SCUBA gear for what could have been a routine dive but knowing that we would not be surfacing for 12 more days! With our team photo complete and the hot Florida sun beating down on us — finally jumping into the ocean was just the best feeling ever.

Since we had full cylinders of air on our backs the team enjoyed a great dive around Aquarius, which included of course posing for the customary pre-mission photos! As we positioned ourselves around one of Aquarius’ port holes we were joined by an inquisitive little turtle, who we later learned was called Little Joe and was a huge fan with previous NEEMO crews. With the air getting low it was finally time to say goodbye to our topside dive buddies and head into the wet-porch of Aquarius, where our lab technicians James and Justin were waiting to greet us. Some of the first things we noticed were the higher pitch of our voices and the fact that it was very hard to whistle in the thick air under a pressure of 2.5 atmospheres.

Aquarius is such an amazing place — unique as it is currently the only underwater habitat in the world and as James took us through the initial briefing it was hard not to be distracted by the Wrasse, Grouper, Barracuda and myriad of other marine animals who were queuing up outside the portholes to look at these strange humans who had come to share their environment for a short period of time.

Unfortunately, our free time to enjoy the new environment was limited as we had to get to work setting up our ‘IV Station’ with communications, IT, cameras, etc., and getting back into the water in pairs with our mini-workstations and jet-packs attached for more familiarization and practice of our asteroid extravehicular activity techniques.

So a successful and busy start to this amazing mission, and as we acclimatise to our new surroundings, it is very clear to see that the real fun is only just beginning!

To learn more about the NEEMO 16 mission, visit:

Dr. Love's Underwater Blog: NEEMO 15

Image: One of the DeepWorkers that Dr. Love would have piloted during NEEMO 15.

Dr. Love’s Underwater Blog 2011 #1
October 25
Key Largo, FL

Welcome back to Dr. Love’s Underwater Blog!

For readers new to the blog, I posted the first installments in March 2010, while I was in Vancouver, Canada learning how to pilot the DeepWorker submarine from the experts at Nuytco. I wrote more entries in July 2010 from Pavilion Lake, where I spent a week driving submarines and serving as support crew on the chase boats while we made surveys, took photographs, and collected samples to try to understand the strange coral-like “microbialite” growths on the bottom of the lake. Pavilion Lake was a bizarre and beautiful environment to explore by submarine, with near-freezing crystal-clear water, steep underwater slopes forested with sculptured calcium carbonate knobs and towers, and mathematically flat basin floors carpeted with snowy white calcite fluff.

This year I was planning to return to the cozy cockpit of the DeepWorker to support the 15th NASA Extreme Environments Mission Operations (NEEMO 15) at the Aquarius underwater habitat near Key Largo, Florida. Fellow submersible pilot Ricky Arnold and I made it as far as the operations base in Key Largo, but then the plan changed. This happens commonly in field operations, but it’s always exciting when in happens.

In our case, the culprit is Hurricane Rina, which is rapidly strengthening in the Caribbean Sea east of Belize. It’s not a threat to us right now, but the forecast shows it heading this way. Because it takes several days to safely get the aquanauts to the surface (without subjecting them to the risk of decompression sickness) and secure all the boats and other assets that support NEEMO, the folks in charge had to make a decision this morning. They decided to take the safest course of action.

So no DeepWorker driving for Dr. Love this trip…but the Underwater Blog can go on, because two days ago I had a chance to scuba dive at the habitat. Boy, was that ever different from Pavilion Lake! Warm water, substantial current to swim against, swarms of colorful tropical fish, and every solid surface encrusted with corals and sponges. We also had a chance to poke our heads into the habitat and chat with the aquanauts. It’s a very strange experience to swim 50 feet down under the sea, then poke your head up into air and talk to folks wearing street clothes. Since Halloween is coming soon, we said “Trick or treat!” and explained that we were dressed as scuba divers. The aquanauts thought that was silly, but gave us candy anyway.

The following day (yesterday), the NEEMO team was still operating according to the planned schedule, and I had the opportunity to work as a CAPCOM on board the support ship for that day’s DeepWorker operations. At Pavilion Lake, we launched and recovered the subs from a barge made from two big rectangular steel floats, with a gap between them and an overhead chain hoist for raising and lowering the subs. This ingenious setup worked great, and had the advantage that it could be easily broken down into components small enough to transport by truck to a remote mountain lake and to place in the water using a mobile crane. At NEEMO we operate on the world ocean, which means we can use oceangoing ships. In our case, we have the great fortune to be able to use the Liberty Star, one of the two small ships that NASA used for thirty years to go out to sea after each Space Shuttle launch, find the two solid rocket motors that separate from the stack two minutes into flight and parachute into the ocean below, and tow them back to port so they could be inspected, taken apart, refurbished, re-filled with solid propellant, and used again to boost another Shuttle toward orbit. What a treat to work aboard such a historic vessel!

Liberty Star has a large crane on the aft deck that makes light work of hoisting a DeepWorker in and out of the water, even in 3-5 foot seas. It has an air-conditioned bridge from which we tracked the subs and operated the equipment that let us communicate with them. And it has a full galley serving three square meals a day. It made a spectacular platform for supporting the submarine operations. It also made a great observation platform. At one point a school of flying fish came by, gliding from wavetop to wavetop. Another sight unknown at Pavilion Lake.

So that’s all for the Underwater Blog this trip. But the next time NASA sees fit to put me underwater again, I’ll be ready to share the experience.


Dr. Love

Booms and Jetpacks

Steve Squyres uses a small boom for translation activities.
Image at right: Steve Squyres of Cornell uses a small boom for translation activities.

Today was Day 4 of our mission and it was a challenging one. As usual,the action was centered around the “EVAs”, or extra-vehicular activities inNASA parlance – our simulated space walks.

We had two different kinds of activities in today’s EVAs. One of themwas very slow, very methodical, and very effective. Imagine a long telescopingpole – we called it a boom – with big heavy magnets on each end. We used thisboom to get around on the simulated asteroid surface (i.e., the sea floor),moving like an inchworm.

It goes like this: Fasten both magnets to anchor points on the surface.Unfasten one and move to it to a new anchor point. Fasten it. Unfasten theother one and move it to a new anchor point… and repeat as necessary. It wasslow, but it got us to where we wanted to go pretty reliably.

Once we arrived at our destination, the boom was great. It’s hard to dothings like hit a rock with a hammer in zero-g without going flying. But withthe boom solidly in place, we could wrap our legs around it and whack away atthe rock pretty easily. So a boom could be a good technique for geologists touse to get work done on an asteroid, I think.

The other part of the EVA was totally different… jet packs! We hadbattery-powered thruster packs on our backs that we could use to move veryquickly and easily from one place to another. And yeah, I have to confess, itwas every bit as much fun as it sounds like it was. Quick, easy, and very cool.Problem was, once we arrived at our destination with ajob to do, staying in place was a lot harder.

Sometimes the best answer to a complicated problem is to use somecombination of techniques. So one way I could see this going might be thatastronauts would use jet packs to move long distances over an asteroid surface,and then a boom for smaller motions and getting work done.

Or maybe they’ll use something completely different! It’s only Day 4 ofthe mission, and we’ve got a lot more techniques to try… so we’ll see.

NEEMO 15: Scenes From Training Week

Pre-mission Set-up
Karl Shreeves and Jeremy Hansen (CSA) set up equipment for Andrew Abercromby (NASA) to test. Photo credit: NASA

Pre-mission EVA and Tools Briefing
Crew members David Saint-Jaques (CSA) and Steve Squyres (Cornell) receive tool training on the small extension boom and other tools to be used during the mission. Photo credit: NASA

Getting Used to the Asteroid Simulation Wall
Steve Squyres (Cornell) (left) and Takuya Onishi (JAXA) make it to the top of the wall. Photo credit: NASA

Navigating To Aquarius
Left to right (front) David Saint-Jacques (CSA), Shannon Walker (NASA), Jason Nunn (NURC), and Takuya Onishi (JAXA). In the background is Margarita Marinova (NASA) and Jeremy Hanson (CSA). Photo credit: NASA

Configuring the Translation Tool Simulator
Andrew Abercromby (NASA) and Steve Chappell (NASA) place simulated anchoring and translation equipment across the simulated asteroid surface.

A Moment to Enjoy Some Visitors
Margarita Marinova (NASA), David Saint-Jacques (CSA), Shannon Walker (NASA) (back), and Takuya Onishi (JAXA) enjoy a swim with the neighborhood wildlife. Photo credit: NASA

The NEEMO 15 mission is projected to start Oct. 20. Learn more about the mission objectives and follow through live webcasts on the NEEMO website.

NEEMO 15 Training Successfully Complete

Clockwise from upper left: NEEMO 15 crew and CAPCOM; Steve Squyres in SL-17 training; Shannon Walker preparing for dive training; crew dive skills checkouts; astronaut Takuya Onishi donning the SL-17 helmet; David Saint-Jacques waiting to start his SL-17 dive; crew during SL-17 training (2). Photos credit: NASA

Clockwise from upper left: NEEMO 15 crew and CAPCOM; Steve Squyres in SL-17 training; Shannon Walker preparing for dive training; crew dive skills checkouts; astronaut Takuya Onishi donning the SL-17 helmet; David Saint-Jacques waiting to start his SL-17 dive; crew during SL-17 training (2). Photos credit: NASA

The training week for NEEMO 15 – the 15th mission of the NASA Extreme Environment Mission Operations (NEEMO) program – has successfully completed. The mission is scheduled for Oct. 17-29, however current severe weather has delayed the start of the mission until Thursday, Oct. 20 at the earliest. The mission is still expected to be a full 13-day mission.

Mission Preparation

A core set of team members has been in place throughout the training week making final preparations for the mission, including deployment of equipment to the sea floor around Aquarius for the saturation crew to perform testing. A circuit has been set up to evaluate different techniques for translation, sampling, and instrument deployment, including the use of Deep Worker submersibles as Space Exploration Vehicle (SEV) analogs. Additionally, on shore, the Mobile Mission Control Center (MMCC) has been set up and is ready to support offshore activities. Finally, a science team has been hard at work in preparation for the science traverse portion of the mission, which will run in parallel with the saturation crew performing NEA exploration activities.

Dive Training

Portions of the week have been dedicated to dive training for the saturation crew as well as the topside support crew. The saturation crew has received training on scuba and the SL-17 dive system that they will use on EVA from Aquarius. The topside support divers have received all necessary training to assist the saturation crew in the execution of their mission activities.

The Deep Worker submersibles on the Liberty Star in preparation for departure from Kennedy Space Center to Aquarius.

NEEMO 15 Engineering Tests: Education and Public Outreach

While everyone gets an idea of all of the exciting engineering tests and evaluations going on this week in Key Largo, Fla. for the upcoming NEEMO 15 mission from these daily blogs, not many folks know about what goes on behind the scenes to inform YOU about what’s happening with the day-to-day activities. What it takes to get the word out, what it takes to let you in on the cool tests and evaluations that these hardworking engineers perform undersea and on the ocean floor at the Aquarius habitat, and what it takes to bring the action to you, so you can enjoy it, interact with it, learn from it, and be inspired by it.

One method would be a blog, just like this. Another, perhaps a press release or media advisory or interviews with media outlet, or maybe one of those new fancy social media outlets. Who updates those and answers all of the questions? What about all of those cool photos… who takes them, who organizes them, how are they stored? And let’s not forget about those really awesome live interactive education events! How in the world do you coordinate getting into a classroom full of kids in a remote location, tying in an education specialist at Johnson Space Center, adding a live video feed from a boat out at the Aquarius, talking live with a person at the Aquarius Reef Base Watch Desk, and interactively chatting online at the website where the live video feeds?

How we inform the media or public, how we bring live education events to classrooms, how we document and record the mission, takes more than one person and more than one asset. It takes a team of people located in different centers and some on-site, to know all the technical details of the mission and to be able to follow what is happen throughout the day to entertain, interact with, inspire you.

So, here is an snapshot of our Education and Public Outreach activities that happen on a typical day during our NEEMO mission during our engineering evaluations. We start our day bright and early, with our all-hands meeting with the NEEMO mission manager. From there, we get ready for the rest of outreach activities throughout the day. For example, set up a phone interview with a national media outlet, conduct recorded interviews with subject matter experts for use during live events or in the case of a communication issue during a live event, write a basic script and coordinate and test the communication equipment and phone lines for interactive education event that will occur the following day, continually update Facebook and answer questions, tweet throughout the day and respond to questions on Twitter, meet with the engineering team when they get back from their day activities, download all of the photos and videos taken throughout the day to a server, sort through and pick favorites to upload to Flickr and write captions for those. Coordinate a photo shoot at mission control. Write a blog, such as this! Set up for a live distance learning (DLN) event and execute it.. Pretty crazy, huh?! And then, the day ends by documenting all of the work, lessons learned, preparing for the next day, and it all starts all over again the next day.

You can follow our mission this week at:
Facebook: NEEMO
Flickr: NEEMO 15

NEEMO 15 EPO team

The Education and Public Outreach (EPO) team interviews subject matter experts on systems deployed during the engineering tests. Photo credit: NASA

NEEMO 15 Engineering Tests, Day 2: Taking Designs Into the Field

NEEMO 15 engineer divers

Engineer divers get ready to install the translation tool simulator into the wall.

The NEEMO-15 mission will be in October, and in an engineer’s mind, that means there’s still time to iterate on designs. Today the engineering team took some of those designs into the field. One of the devices tested today was a “spacesuit waist ring simulator.” It acts as the waist structure of a spacesuit would, except it’s attached to a diver wearing SCUBA tanks. It holds EVA tools, provides stability against structure, and even blocks some of the view, just as a spacesuit’s waist ring would. So today, after constructing this device in labs and workshops, it was finally time to put it in the water. After estimating it’s weight and buoyancy (and yes, there were bets on whether it would float!), it finally had its first taste of the ocean while still dockside. It checked out, as did the other tools and giant fiberglass “rockwall” that some of the experiments would mount to. So after the paperwork was all signed off, the team set out to the reef.

When arriving at the site – on the same reef but some distance away from Aquarius – the team lowered the rockwall to the ocean floor. Then, one-by-one, test subjects, utility divers, and support divers worked through their checklists and started the clocks on their dive. Astronaut Mike Gernhardt, the test subject actually in the “rig,” found the buoyancy to be near perfect (something that can sometimes take 30 minutes to correct), and started the experiments right away. The first thing that struck everyone was the visibility – the bright sunny, calm day helped the lighting – but the silt being kicked up made it impossible to see further than 10 feet. For the most part this didn’t affect the experiments, and the team pressed ahead. They tested hand-over-hand translation with anchor points on the rockwall, foot-restraint ingresses, anchoring in the silt to stabilize the setup, and using a rigid standoff attached to the waist ring for body stabilization. All while their time was ticking away – and they were not able to speak to each other. This was shaping up to be quite the debrief session.

Anchor tool

This tool will be an anchor and the aquanauts (or divers, in this case) will use the different lines to translate in the surface of an asteroid.

Once back on the boat, the crew discussed what they had learned. Either luck or excellent prediction had caused the rig to be perfectly buoyant, but some stabilization was needed on the waist ring – and the fins – they proved to be positively buoyant by sending the subject’s feet sinking after they were removed. Mike was happy to share an interesting discovery: while holding an excursion line anchored in two locations on the “asteroid,” one could effectively pull against the surface and walk, just as if there was gravity! There were other lessons learned, and many adjustments that would need to be made overnight and in the next few days, so the team used the trip back to base to rest and, well, talk more about the big picture.

I guess you could call it an engineering brainstorming session. Not one with whiteboards, flowcharts and venn diagrams, but just bunch of people, passionate about space exploration, talking on a boat. They all had huge variations in their backgrounds and individual training, and just witnessed a sampling of how difficult it would be to possibly someday explore an asteroid. Were the issues they saw today the same ones would be face on an asteroid? No, but some of them were strikingly analogous: The near-zero visibility had a similar effect to what could happen after touching the surface of a dusty asteroid. Body movements made on the ocean floor while “almost” neutrally buoyant are similar to what astronauts would face when moving across the surface of an uncharted asteroid. And how will we know what anchoring techniques would be effective? As the team neared the base on the shores of Key Largo, their conversation shifted to the varieties of anchoring tools we use here on Earth. Not knowing what kind of surfaces are out there is making us consider a variety of approaches from many “analogous” situations here on Earth: rock climbing, foundation repair, even drift diving.

This was just a snapshot of one day of experiments in preparation for the NEEMO-15. The countless hours that go into getting ready for a mission are one of the many similarities to NASA’s space missions. Significant is the fact that NEEMO-15 will mimic something that has never been done by humans before. The question could be posed: Isn’t this just a combination of what we have done in the past? Combine the weightlessness, tethering and translation techniques on the International Space Station, and then add to that all of the knowledge gained putting human feet on another world during the Apollo program. Right?

Not quite. The final discussions of the evening (after hours of replanning, retooling and regrouping) were about how asteroid exploration is definitely the most challenging of both worlds. Exploring a possibly dusty, wholly unknown, completely uncertified, essentially weightless, “surface” of an asteroid, would definitely be more challenging than combining the sum of our lessons learned from the Moon and ISS. Those experiences under our belt will be the basis of much that NASA does in the future – but we all agree it’s a good thing we’re learning how to hone our skills, here on Earth.

Hand translation simulation

A close-up shot of the hand translation simulation.

NEEMO 15 Engineering Tests, Day 1

NEEMO 15 support crew

NEEMO 15 support crew setting up devices to be used in the mission.

Today was a busy day in Key Largo, Florida for the support crew of the NEEMO 15 engineering tests. Personnel of NOAA’s Undersea Research Center, or NURC, were busy activating the Aquarius and preparing for this week’s intense diving operations. They left the dock here at the shoreside support facility, aptly named Aquarius Reef Base (ARB), early this morning and were out conducting operations at the Aquarius site, approximately 5 miles south-southeast of Key Largo.

They started up the generators and compressors on the Life Support Buoy (LSB) directly above Aquarius. The LSB has an umbilical directly down to Aquarius to supply it with fresh air, electricity, and communication links. Divers then descended to Aquarius and powered up all the systems and tested the communications equipment in preparation for the week’s upcoming events. NEEMO mission specific tasks were also performed, such as setting up portions of the rock wall, and testing the remotely operated vehicle (ROV).

While all this was going on offshore, the NASA support team was busy onshore at ARB assembling structures to be placed on the seafloor such as mock-ups for the Multi-mission Space Exploration Vehicle (MMSEV) and suit port alignment guides (SPAG), anchoring and tethering devices, translation hardware, and telescoping booms with foot restraint devices. Additionally, they conducted familiarization training on the diving equipment, and checked out equipment to be used on the week’s intense dive operations, to begin tomorrow. Safety briefings were given by the NURC personnel and swim tests were conducted on those dive team members who were either new to the project, or no longer current by NURC’s guidelines. Several runs to the local dive shops and hardware stores were needed to make up for any shortcomings in the original logistics.

NEEMO 15 support crew

NEEMO 15 support crew member assembling structures for dive operations.

Numerous interviews were recorded with subject matter experts on various NEEMO hardware and ROV operations. An all-hands briefing was held in the evening, going over the day’s accomplishments, and previewing tomorrow’s planned diving operations.

NEEMO 14 Mission Day 13 and 14

by Heather Paul and Amanda Knight
Analog Lead Technical Liaison
for Education and Public Outreach
Topside in Key Largo, Florida!

During NEEMO 14, the aquanauts perform saturation diving. Saturation diving is a technique that allows them to avoid the effects of “the bends” so they may work on the ocean floor for their mission. “The bends” is very similar to the experience astronauts have when exiting the space vehicle to perform spacewalks. In these instances, the pressure in the spacesuit is lower than the pressure in the vehicle. In order to safely and effectively prevent “the bends” for saturation diving, dive tables have been developed, to determine the time required for decompression, depending upon the maximum time at a specific depth.

“Saturation” refers to the aquanauts’ tissues absorbing the maximum partial pressure of gas possible for a given depth, after being exposed to breathing gas at that pressure for a prolonged time. Saturation diving is important because, once an aquanaut’s tissues become saturated, the length of time required for decompression and safe ascent from the depth of Aquarius will not increase.

Mission day 13 was dedicated time for the aquanauts to decompress. Decompression happens as the pressure within Aquarius is slowly brought back to the surface pressure from the operating depth of the Aquarius habitat. This process takes over 17 hours to complete. Once the decompression is completed, the aquanauts are allowed to swim to the surface and return safely home.

For more information on Aquarius, saturation diving and decompression, please visit

On mission day 14, the crew, happy and healthy, safely made it to the topside boat to return back to the site of Mission Control in Key Largo, after completing all mission objectives. Everyone was glad to see the crew after two weeks.. and they were very glad to be in the sun!

Crew and support divers return home

The crew and support divers return to the dock in Key Largo where the topside support team was happy to welcome them safely home!

It has been such a privilege to work with such an amazing Aquarius crew and topside support and personnel! And thanks to each of you who have been following along with us on this extreme environment mission. Videos, photos and information will continue to be posted to our social media sites, so please stay tuned!

If you enjoyed seeing how we continue to prepare for planetary expeditions and are developing technology and operations, keep your eyes out for our next set of analog field tests, which are just around the corner.